Thursday 11 January 2018

Planes, photos and doctored postcards

This tale should logically be number 12 in my list of challenges, but rather than solving a mystery I have instead upset a wasp nest of other riddles that may or may not all be related beyond one clear link; photography.

The challenge itself though should have been a straightforward one. Bronwyn sent me a link to an old postcard of the street in which she lives (rue Mélingue off the rue de Belleville in the 19th arrondissement) and asked if I could identify the flying machine in the picture, and whether it might possibly have a link with a small factory at the address that had possibly manufactured observation kites during the First World War.

With the help of Twitter, the aircraft was quickly identified. It was almost certainly a Farman III biplane, an early French aircraft first flown in 1909. Why though did it appear in the background of this apparently nondescript Paris street? Observation kites were much like hot-air balloons, so even if they were manufactured here, there was no obvious link to this particular aircraft in the sky. Were there any other possible links?

Rue Melingue, then and now

Looking into the myriad world of Belleville factories, things got even more complex. “Belleville c’était véritablement une usine, dans chaque maison y avait plusieurs ateliers” (Belleville was truly a factory, in each building there were several workshops) noted one long-term resident. Perhaps because of this I could find no trace of a factory that might have made kites or balloons. It quickly became clear though that the street had a different specialty; photography.

And not just any kind of photography.

The Vérascope

The street's largest employer was undoubtedly the factory run by Jules Richard. The Richards were a family of industrialists specialising in precision measurement tools, particularly barometers, but they also had interests in the developing automobile and aircraft industries. The eldest son, Jules, though had one particular passion that would ensure the continued success of the family business; photography.

Jules was particularly interested in the possibilities offered by stereoscopic photography, a system which consisted of creating 3D illusions from a pair of 2D images known as a stereogram. The Richards family designed and built both the cameras that took the pictures (particularly the Verascope brand) and the stereoscope viewer that was necessary to see the images in apparent 3D.

The business was an immense success and the company quickly expanded along much of the Rue Mélingue. This included not only the manufacturing plants and offices, but also Jules Richard's own home and testing facilities that included an ancient Greece themed studio known as the atrium (at n°26). Jules Richard did much of the testing here himself, which perhaps unsurprisingly included mostly disrobed young women posing in the baths. Richard was not the first or last person to realise that such pictures helped to market and sell new technologies. 

An ad for the Vérascope and a stereogram of the factory walls on the Rue Mélingue that also served as supports for testing of the optics.

Whether of factory walls, nude figures or street scenes, Richards' stereograms were essentially playing a trick with our eyes and brains. Two separate images combined produced something else, using the functioning of the human brain to give the perception of 3D depth. 

Interestingly, Bronwyn's postcard is not entirely what it seems to be on first inspection either. Looking more carefully, it is clear that the aircraft in the postcard has been added at a later date. At a time when any movement during the taking of a picture added a blur to the image (the wheels of the cart in the postcard for example), the aircraft here is perfectly clear. 

Strangely, this manipulation was far from being a one-off and instead seems to have been something of a business. Such additions added a little drama to a scene, and enabled people to collect souvenir images of flights that would have been impossible to capture otherwise with the technologies of the time.

Other doctored Paris scenes, including one of the original plane-free cards

Whilst Jules Richard and the Vérascope surely had no role to play in the doctored postcards, perhaps there was a little nod to the industrialist with this particular card on his street. A single image overlaid with a slightly different second reality.

The story does not end there though. Following the death of Jules Richard in 1930, photography - and aircraft - continued to play an important role in rue Mélingue.

The king of aerial photography

The Richard company and the production of its brands continued after the death of Jules, although he never married and had no children to continue the dynasty. One of the post-war directors of the company, Roger Henrard, stayed in the post for 20 years (1953-1973), but was far better known for another of his activities; aerial photography.

Before the war, then throughout his time at Richard, Henrard spent many hours flying at low altitude over Paris, capturing astonishing images of a changing city. The later pictures were processed in his studio at the Richard factory and eventually donated to the musée Carnavalet. Amusingly, Henrard even captured the factory itself in one of his pictures (below, centre). The Farman III biplane may never have flown at low altitude over the rue Mélingue, but several decades later another aircraft did!

Bonus pictures: Place Vendôme as car park and Beaubourg before the Centre Pompidou.



Terry said...

As always your article is fascinating! Is the last photo from after WWII? It's so sad, all the destruction. But it is so interesting to read about the activities of these people from early in the last century. People have always been so energetic and creative and hard working!

Norman said...

Thank you for a fascinating piece of detective work and writing. I will pass the link on to several friends who are interested in stereo photos or postcards or both. Have long had an interest doctored postcards and other images and this is a great story.
Thanks also for brightening up a grey, gloomy, rainy day in Toronto. It has been cold, minus 22C last week but i think I like the cold and fairly white snow much better than the rain that is turning the snow into off-colour mush. Philippa just called from her office, next to mine: "It's snowing. Yup that is what it is, that's snow all right."
With a great bit of Paris history and some snow it will be a good weekend.

Adam said...

Terry: thanks! Yes, the Henrard photo was taken in 1951. It wasn't war destruction here though but rather slum clearances. The space remained empty though until the Pompidou centre arrived.

Norman: I'm delighted to have helped warm up a weekend! Have you ever seen one of these modified postcards? I'm determined to find one now!

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